You’ve seen them, even if you didn’t know what they were called. Heliconias are the ultimate exotic flowers, starring in arrangements in tropical hotels around the globe and as far away as outer space – on television, anyway; heliconias greeted intergalactic ambassadors on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Closer to home, they can’t be beat for providing fantastic foliage and bright color in tropical and subtropical gardens. Stunning long-lasting cut flowers are a big bonus.
Heliconia is the only genus in its family, Heliconiaceae, in the order Zingiberales. Its most famous cousins are bananas (Musaceae), gingers (Zingiberaceae), birds of paradise (Strelitziaceae) and cannas (Cannaceae).
The colorful bracts, always in shades of red, yellow, orange and green, protect the true flowers that last only a day or two and are replaced by others over the months-long life of the inflorescence.
Astonishingly, all of the gorgeous forms of heliconia are made by nature. Humans have not been able to successfully hand-pollinate heliconia, so there are no artificial hybrids. Hummingbirds are the only pollinators observed by scientists, though many other creatures visit the flowers. Natural hybrids are rather common, thanks to incessant visits by those hummers. Humans do have a role in new forms, though: seeds of cultivated plants often produce new hybrids, thanks to hummingbirds in gardens visiting numerous species that are never near each other in nature.
Now that you know about the role of hummingbirds, which are found only in the New World, you’ll not be surprised to learn that the approximately 250 species of heliconias are native to the Americas (with the exception of six species in the South Pacific which are pollinated by bats). Correspondingly, gingers are native to the Old World; there is just one genus of ginger in the Neotropics: Renealmia. Heliconias are thoroughly tropical, with very few species withstanding sustained temperatures below 10ºC (50ºF).
When it comes to identifying species, Heliconias are categorized primarily by their inflorescence habits: upright or pendent, and a flat (distichous) or spiral bract arrangement. The leaf arrangement of most heliconias is musoid, which means their leaves look like those of banana: six or eight large leaves extending above a longish stem. But to break the rule, Heliconia hirsuta, for example, is zingiberoid, which means it has many small leaves evenly spaced along the stem, like a ginger. The flowers of Heliconia hirsuta and Heliconia psittacorum look similar, but the foliage clearly distinguishes them.
Like other plants in the order Zingiberales, heliconias are most often propagated by division of rhizomes. My good friend Jan Hintze wrote about propagating heliconia from rhizomes for GardenDrum.
Heliconias can also be grown from seed. It is a longer process, but seeds are sometimes the only way to get a new variety, and seedling plants are often stronger than divisions. Ripe heliconia fruits hold between one and three seeds that turn blue when ripe (except for those bat-pollinated species, whose fruits turn red). Jan also describes how to grow heliconias from seeds.
I enjoy trading heliconia seeds for any other tropical plant seeds, so drop me a line if you like to barter!
Though a few varieties have stained the entire genus with the reputation for running wild through the garden, many heliconias form close clumps. Before choosing a heliconia for your garden, try to visit the adult plant in the ground. You’ll see the overall size and spread, and be able to put it in the right spot.
The overall size of heliconia species ranges from the smallest Heliconia psittacorum, usually a meter tall and Heliconia stricta ‘Dwarf Jamaican’ at under 50cm, to the biggest, Heliconia titanum at 10 m or more. Commonly grown garden varieties, even in the same species, such as Heliconia stricta, can vary from under a meter tall to three meters depending on the cultivar.
A photo of the flower or a plant in a pot won’t tell you what you need to know for proper placement in the garden, so be sure to get more information.
If you live in the subtropics or in a dry climate, start with the tried and true heliconia varieties offered by local nurseries. Then once you are successful, move on to varieties from farther afield.
Heliconias don’t suffer from many problems in the garden, especially if a few basic needs are met. They want warm weather, regular watering and plenty of organic matter in the form of mulch. The amount of direct sun they tolerate depends on the variety, but most look best in bright shade. Some gardeners fertilize and others don’t; I think it depends on how much leaf litter and other organic material is decomposing in place. Animals and insects that root around for juicy rhizomes will get into heliconias; those of you with problem creatures are all too familiar with them, and you have to take the same precautions with heliconias that you do with other related plants. Few fungi, bacteria or insect pests cause serious problems if the plant’s basic wants are provided: warmth, water and mulch.
Maintenance consists of removing old leaves and stems that have finished flowering, on a schedule that fits your desire for neatness in the garden; the plants don’t mind old stems fading away in place, and they withstand regular cutting of healthy stems, as is done in cut flower farms. If you can chop and drop the spent leaves and stems and leave them as mulch at the base of the plant, all the better.
and websites of the many nurseries that sell heliconias.